Roots (2): Excitebike

by kaminazo



  Around the same time I was obsessed with Spacestation Pheta, my eldest sister got an NES (Nintendo Entertainment System). With two younger siblings and their greedy eyes glowing, she eventually granted us some play time. One of the random dollar rentals I played to death was Excitebike. As the name suggests, it was both exciting AND had bikes! (Motor bikes, not bicycles.) But more importantly, it had a special feature called “design mode.” I know it’s archaic, but bear with me.

EXCITEBIKE, Nintendo (c.1984). 80's colors + isometric view = WIN!

You are a mass of pixels resembling a motocross racer and his trusty red steed. You must race against the clock and your computer-controlled peers in a dirt track arena obstacle course. The only things that can help you win are the overdrive speed boost, knocking other drivers off the course, and navigating around dirt patches and over jumps without crashing or overheating. The basic goal of the game is to qualify for the championship race and win by beating the time requirement. This is what I call a side-scrolling game with an optimization objective. What I mean by that is you must memorize the level, practice, and perfect your methods of clearing the course in the least amount of time possible (such a very Japanese concept). Most arcade games followed the design of “clear level, rinse, repeat” because competitive gaming was done in turns. Alas, no multiplayer. It was a challenge to make that happen with two older siblings fighting over the controller, too. But if you were the best time holder, you could sit back and watch the frustration as they struggle to beat it. What the game was essentially doing was slowly training us to do “speed runs.” (More on speed runs later.)

Notice the stamp at the bottom.

I later found out that Excitebike was so flippin’ awesome because it was designed by Shigeru Miyamoto (宮本 茂), a man I’d like to dub the godfather of Nintendo. The game was actually a release title for NES, another fact I had to research to find out. He probably only made it because Donkey Kong was such a huge success and Nintendo wanted more! I might have noticed it years ago, but I was looking for screen shots of the game and noticed the stamp “programmable series” (see above) on the game box. Apparently there were others! But only two: Mach Rider and Wrecking Crew—just enough to call it a series. The whole project was kind of a half-assed attempt at making save files possible. The Famicom had a peripheral called a Data Recorder which made it possible here in Japan. Unfortunately, the concept was never realized for the American version, which left me cursing at the screen because the Save/Load options didn’t do anything. But the level design option still existed if you didn’t mind remaking levels every time you turned the system on. Sometimes if I made a really good one to torture my sisters with, I didn’t turn off the NES at all. I can’t help but remember a scene from the movie The Princess Bride when Fred Savage’s character turns on his TV and resumes playing a game he left on pause for hours (which I believe was Hardball! for Atari, but you get the point). Some amusing discussions of early pause button abuse: #1, #2.

Save and Load...just to tease us.

Even though I couldn’t save a thing, Excitebike’s design mode let me be Shigeru Miyamoto, at least until the power went out. Entering the editor is rather easy from the main menu, which then drops you into a submenu with several options (see above).  There’s a Mode A (solo) and B (grand prix). But, Mode B was way more fun and unpredictable. The grand prix was really strange, actually…all the competitors are randomly generated and appeared on and off screen in endless droves. You never really raced against them, they were just in the way. I think it was the designer’s hurried answer to his dream of making a multiplayer vs mode. So to get started, we must click on DESIGN. Upon loading the editor, the dirt track backdrop you see in-game scrolls quickly ahead. When the level is loaded in play mode this is where the starting gates will be added, and players have time to speed up. Apparently we couldn’t be trusted to place those on our own. So, now we are presented with a screen that looks like the image below.

Here is my then, DaVinci, Picasso, or Pollock?

So what is all this stuff? Well, the red bike is a cursor to help you keep TRACK of your…track (bad pun). There are sandbags on the top and bottom that work like a grid. And, all the letters at the bottom are different pieces of predesigned stuff to throw into your level, with no way of telling what they are. So, if playing the game wasn’t enough memorization for you, now you get to memorize what heck piece L was. With any level designer (program) there’s a learning curve. It probably took me ages to figure out how it worked when I was 9. Despite that, this is probably the easiest editor to use in all of gamedom. Why do I say that? Well, mostly because there are only about 25 factors that can dictate what makes a level unique, since all you can do is place items and space them apart. But also because this is the only editor I’ve ever used that only edits on the x-axis. It’s surprising because the game has a y-axis (the bike jumps up) and a z-axis (you can change lanes forward and back) in-game. But, limited options make for faster design. I wouldn’t be surprised if it only took Shigeru 24 hours to make every level in the game. Maybe it’s because he couldn’t save his progress either! I won’t go into great detail about each of the 19 unique pieces, but I do want to talk about a few of them, because they alter gameplay somewhat and make the level more interesting.

We owe you one, danchan22.

Danchan22 posted this wonderful Design Guide on Nintendo Relaunch to help us remember all the pieces. Through trial and error, it’s easy to tell which obstacles are the most entertaining during gameplay. Of them, ‘H’ is the biggest jump, easily launching a rider over most obstacles (including other riders). Eventually with some play-testing, I found pieces like ‘A’ useful for springing up and over the smaller hills when you hit it at high speeds. But, M/N are the most unique items and possibly the most valuable to use in-game. By holding down the B button, a player can overburn their engine to get an enormous speed boost. But, if you use it too much your bike overheats and you have to wait on the sidelines for it to cool down. These chevron symbols, located over lanes 1 and 4 respectively, reduce the player’s TEMP gauge back to about 20% when hit. They can be extremely useful at various intervals to make an impressive speed run possible in any level. Timing cool-down chevrons correctly and alternating them among other obstacles to make them tricky to hit was the best formula I found for designing Excitebike levels.

Most times, when working with an editor this simple, a traditional level is the most boring thing you can do. I always opted to do one of three things: 1) make them short and simple, 2) make them long and difficult, but secretly stash in the chevrons at perfect times to make a hidden speed run possible, or 3) make them crazy and cluttered with massive jumps all over the place. Here is a short video of some very irreverent (at times funny) reviewers emulating the Excitebike editor.

If you rub it, I hear you get three wishes.

Which brings me to my last fond memory of Excitebike: pluggin’ it into a Game Genie. The first console to ever be donned with this plug-n’-play cheat system was the NES. It was immensely popular when I was in grade school and every kid with a Nintendo had one of these nearby. For this game, the Game Genie had 7 codes to alter gameplay. The best of these was mega-turbo speed. It made your bike go so fast you would literally fly above the top of the screen and over huge sections of the level and then bounce like a tennis ball when it hit the ground. I remember laughing hysterically when I first saw it in action (What?, I was 9).

All in all, Excitebike was an important milestone and my first console editor. Motocross is definitely a game genre I have not explored much since then. I’m glad I could share my thoughts on it with you, and will now prepare to delve into Part 3 of my Roots blog on level design. We will be leaving the world of console-based 2D side-scrolling now for a glimpse at the future of gaming, 3D first-person.

End Part 2.